The Film Festival is coming to town! The Film Festival is coming to town!
Actually, the festival’s worker bees have been in Telluride for weeks now, setting up for the 40th “SHOW.”
Ellen and I had just moved to Telluride in August 1976 when the third TFF raised its curtain, with tributes to Bugs Bunny creator Chuck Jones, the original King Kong, and director King Vidor. That year we met Bill and Stella Pence, festival founders along with James Card and Tom Luddy. The Pences will be in town this week to help celebrate the 40th.
All of this sends me back to a time when our two families, ours and the Pences, got together at a place we fondly referred to as the Ridgway Bijou.
A bijou is a jewel, something small and exquisitely wrought. It was also the name given to any number of little movie theaters across the country during the glory days of movie houses.
Ridgway, as far as I know, never had a cinema, at least not the kind to which you could go for a Saturday matinee. So when Bill and Stella moved there in the mid 1970s – before VHS, way before Netflix – they built their own.
The first time they invited us to a movie at their house, I thought we were lost. We were miles from the highway up Deer Creek, rumbling along a dirt track on course only, it seemed to me, for a date with the alpenglow on the Cimarron crest. Then, twisting out of the junipers and into an old pasture, we came upon the house, salmon orange in the last light. It grew out of the hill, a fanciful collaboration by Frank Lloyd Wright, say, and an Anasazi architect. A Russian wolfhound the size of a small horse woofed a deep greeting, and Stella beckoned from a door in the otherwise blank stucco wall.
I should perhaps back up a little. My wife Ellen had been working for the Pences and their nonprofit National Film Preserve for several months. It was her dream job. We had devoured four movies a week during our first year in Telluride, when the Opera House, which the Pences owned, and the Nugget Theater both changed programs twice weekly. In fact, the day we arrived in town, the Opera House was screening Ellen’s all-time favorite film, La Grande Illusion. Anyone who would restore the Opera House to a jewelbox theater, as the Pences had, and book this black-and-white classic from 1937 had to be OK. The fact that they lived outside Ridgway in this secluded modern castle and commuted every day to Telluride was all the more intriguing.
So, there we were. Bill was secretive about the film we were about to see, just as to this day the festival refuses to divulge the program a minute before they have to. It’s a tradition he started and the current directors happily continue. Bill teases; he knows the joy in the surprise, the magic in the dark.
He led the way down a spiral staircase to the basement. The walls were mysteriously lit. A door swung open and we were in the theater: seven velour armchairs facing a silver lamé curtain. Seven-foot-high overstuffed silver palm trees flanked the screen, and a Charlie Chaplin puppet sat on a black lacquered coffee table. Stella appeared with cookies and tea. Bill disappeared, the lights dimmed, the projector whirred to life, and the screen flooded with light.
The film was Ivan’s Childhood, a brooding, candlelit war dream by the young Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky. When he came to the festival a few years later (still one of the Pences’ greatest coups), it was as if we knew him.
Over the next few years, we visited the Ridgway Bijou often. Bill and Stella, despite their fiercely private natures, wanted to share their celluloid obsession, and they found in us similarly susceptible souls. With the kids wide-eyed (or asleep under blankets on the floor) we watched Gone With the Wind, Dodsworth, Andrei Rublev, East of Eden, Shane. One evening we straggled up their road through hubcap-deep mud. Stella greeted us, “My god, you look straight out of The Grapes of Wrath.” The film that night was the John Ford classic.
We moved from Telluride to Ridgway at the end of that decade in part to be closer to the Bijou. Our apprenticeship was only just beginning. But the Pences were as restless as they were good at putting on the festival, and they moved, first to Santa Fe, then to Hanover, New Hampshire. They ran the TFF from afar, up to and including the 33rd, before handing the reins to new directors, who are about to unveil their seventh.
It’s a Labor Day film orgy, and we will be emotional dishrags by the time it’s over. But thanks to Bill and Stella and the Bijou we are prepared, trained by those silver nights when we settled in and the projectors murmured and the only reality worth a damn was an exquisitely wrought illusion.